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Newark, NJ--A Newark firefighter has come forward with allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation at the Newark Fire Division.
LaTina Byrd, 47, claims she was sexually harassed and discriminated against during her 14 years at the NFD by a fire captain and several other firefighters and that her superiors turned a blind eye and started a campaign of retaliation against her.
Repeated complaints regarding the discrimination to Newark Chief of Staff Amiri "Middy" Baraka, Jr., brother to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, allegedly went ignored.
Byrd—along with several other Newark firefighters who spoke with TAPinto Newark but requested anonymity—also allege that several firehouses throughout the city have been the scene of high-stakes gambling, sexual activity and drinking.
TAPinto Newark is in receipt of City of Newark and Newark Fire Division communications and correspondence, memos, court documents and transcripts, medical records, emails, text messages and photographs that substantiate many of Byrd’s allegations of discrimination and harassment.
Byrd is the second woman in Newark to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment in the post #MeToo environment in which women are breaking their silence about sexual abuse. In December, Dannisha Clyburn, 38—known by many as Queen Hatari—claimed in an exclusive TAPinto Newark interview that she was touched inappropriately and without her consent by Obalaji Baraka, Mayor Baraka's older brother.
Byrd's allegations are not the first against the NFD. In 2015, the NFD came under scrutiny when two Newark firefighters were accused of alleged sexual assault at a city firehouse. The two faced departmental disciplinary charges for violating protocol by allowing a civilian into the firehouse after 10 p.m.
Byrd, a Newark mother of two who served as an administrative assistant/ammunitions specialist for several years during Desert Storm, graduated from the Newark Fire Training Academy as the only female out of 48 graduates and joined the Newark Fire Division in 2002—one of only two females out of approximately 650 firefighters working out of Newark’s 25 firehouses at the time.
Byrd worked at 16 of the firehouses and alleges the abuse occurred at most.
"The other female retired and the climate was like, ‘we lost one, now we have another one'," Byrd said. "They were not used to females being around. I came from a military background, so I was used to being around men. Their mindset is still very much chauvinistic and sexist, so this is the climate that I went into. There was discrimination and sexual harassment and if I tried to address it, I was suppressed."
Almost as soon as she started working for the NFD, Byrd alleges she was subjected to a steady stream of harassment, discrimination and abuse.
When Byrd, still a newcomer at the department, asked a fellow firefighter if there was a locker to store her things, she was asked if it was for feminine items.
“He said to me, ‘what things? You mean like tampons?'"Byrd recalled. "He said, ‘we don’t have any lockers for tampons'."
Because there was no women’s bathroom, Byrd requested the situation be addressed. The ‘fix’ was a small latch installed onto the men’s bathroom.
"I would be in the bathroom and the guys would push the door open and they knew I was in there," Byrd said.
Byrd said she was also forced to share a room with male firefighters, despite asking repeatedly for a room of her own. She finally got her wish in 2007—five years after she joined the department.
Pornographic magazines littered the firehouses, while booze bottles, drinking and getting drunk was commonplace, Byrd alleges. Christmas parties at the firehouse allegedly included strippers.
Another longtime NFD firefighter who requested anonymity substantiated Byrd's allegations.
"This is the culture over there," he said.
"This is 2002, this is not 1950," Byrd said. "This is unheard of. This is uncalled for. Every time I went to work, I didn’t know what to expect. Out of 25 fire companies throughout the city, 90 percent I was harassed at."
The abuse ramped up, with Byrd’s equipment being hidden, buckets of water poised over the door to fall on her and the tap in the bathroom tricked out.
"Now they thought that was funny, but it wasn’t funny to me," she said. "They tried to make me look like I was incompetent. I wanted to just do my job, to be accepted. They really made it hard for me. They always dealt with me in a negative manner."
The pornographic images allegedly started soon after.
"They would send me pictures of their private parts on my phone," Byrd said of some of her fellow firefighters.
In September 2008, Byrd filed a complaint with the city’s Office of Affirmative Action, claiming a hostile work environment. But she was informed by department manager Darline Noble that there was no evidence "to sustain a claim of a hostile work environment or discrimination."
Byrd said she was also subjected to different standards than her male counterparts.
In 2010, Byrd said she was forced to go through an upper body strength test after an NFD captain at Ladder Truck 8 allegedly decided that Byrd was "untrainable" and could not be taught to drive the firetruck.
According to Byrd, a host of NFD superiors were sent to the department to administer the test.
A longtime Newark firefighter who requested anonymity confirmed that no other firefighters in his memory had been subjected to a physical test of that nature.
In 2010, Byrd filed a grievance with the Civil Service Commission against the NFD and won.
In retaliation for filing the grievance, the NFD allegedly forced her to attend a second fire training academy as "punishment," according to Byrd.
Byrd graduated with honors from the Bergen County Public Safety Training Academy that same year.
In 2011, Byrd was put in charge of the fire company’s house fund, which required her to collect money from her fellow firefighters for household expenses like food, drinks and bills, and then shop for the needed supplies.
That same year, Newark Fire Captain Kelton Hall was brought into Fire Company 19 on Freilinghuysen Avenue. Byrd alleges that Hall began sexually harassing her soon after he arrived.
According to Byrd, Hall would regularly knock on her door in the middle of the night, then pull out his penis. Along with this came a steady stream of sexually explicit comments, with the captain telling her he was going to commit sexual acts with her.
Hall, who remains as a captain at the department, did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2012, Byrd was out for three months for a knee injury and upon her return was accused of stealing $2,000 from the house fund.
“He started a campaign against me and I was too afraid to write up the sexual harassment complaints,” Byrd said of Hall. “I had nobody to talk to, I needed my job. The chain of command got behind him and they took it to the prosecutor’s office.”
The Chief of Investigators with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office at the time was Anthony Ambrose, who was promoted in 2015 by Mayor Baraka to the position of Public Safety Director in charge of the city’s police and fire divisions.
Ambrose had served in county prosecutor’s office since 2008.
Byrd said Ambrose never asked her for her side of the story.
“My side of the story was never heard,” she said. “There was no due process.”
Byrd was charged by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office with third-degree theft and fourth-degree hindering and was indicted in November 2014.
“They ran me through the mud,” she said. “They put my name and picture in the paper, they put my kids in the paper. They demoralized me.”
Although Byrd was up for promotion to captain in December 2015, she says she was advised by some friendly superiors to plead guilty and take a plea so that she could eventually get promoted. Byrd pleaded guilty to charges in January 2016.
“I didn’t know a plea meant you forfeit your job,” Byrd said. “I took the plea on advice of my lawyer. I wanted to be a captain—that meant something to me, that meant something to my community. I wanted to inspire other girls. After I took the plea, they wanted me to forfeit my job.”
In February 2016, Byrd—who participates in a Veterans Affairs (VA) program for treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from her years in the military—was written a year-long “Leave of Absence” letter by her VA doctor, who recommended that Byrd remove herself from the stressful situation.
In March 2016, Byrd filed a second complaint with the city and wrote a letter to Ambrose alleging that another firefighter had sent her sexually explicit text messages and photos of his penis.
“I was deeply saddened to know that he thought of me as a sex object, especially because he is a married man,” Byrd wrote in an April letter to Ambrose. “However, this department continues to promote this type of behavior and continues to be a good old boys club. This type of behavior is never addressed in the department and it has failed to protect females.”
Although she showed the explicit text messages and photos to her NFD superiors, Byrd alleges she was told that she “needed more proof.”
Byrd was found “not guilty” by a trial jury in January 2017 at Newark’s Veterans Courthouse on the Theft by Deception charge, while the Hindering charge was thrown out by Ryan.
“It took the jury 23 minutes to find me not guilty,” Byrd said.
Although news of her indictment was repeatedly reported by media outlets in 2014, Byrd claims these same news outlets would not print reports of her exoneration after she contacted them.
In January 2017, after a year of paid leave, Byrd’s VA physician deemed her ready to return to work.
That same month, Byrd received a letter from NFD Fire Chief Rufus Jackson, who informed her that her paid medical leave was ending and that she would be placed on unpaid medical leave, effective February 5, 2017.
Byrd was also informed by Jackson that she was required to take a “Fit for Duty” test scheduled for March 23, 2017.
In April 2017, Byrd was brought up on departmental disciplinary charges—the very same charges she was acquitted of by the court jury in January, with the hearing adjourned in September with no final verdict and the NFD refusing to return Byrd back to duty.
Instead of getting her job back, the city offered Byrd a settlement of backpay comprised of her vacation and personal days, along with the ability to apply for state disability. The departmental charges, however, would still be pursued if Byrd chose to stay with the department.
“My offer was to never come back,” Byrd said.
Byrd refused the offer.
Byrd claims she met with Amiri Baraka, the mayor's chief of staff, at city hall in July 2017 and again in October—along with Special Assistant to the mayor Stacie Hillsman—regarding the discrimination at the fire department.
Byrd was offered the same deal she had previously refused.
Baraka did not respond to a request for comment.
"It’s a good old boys club, so they supported each other," she said. "Sexism trumps racism. 'We can’t stand each other but we really can’t stand women'."
Byrd said she is not going down without a fight and in December filed a harassment and discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“What do I do?” Byrd said. “You want to take my job? They support each other but I’m all alone. I don’t want to be ostracized, I just wanted to be accepted. I just wanted my job. It’s like a nightmare that just won’t end.”
Earlier this month, an attorney for the Newark Firefighters Union wrote a letter to City of Newark Assistant Corporation Counsel France Casseus, asking that the pending charges be dismissed and Byrd be reinstated.
"Firefighter Byrd has a right to timely disposition of the disciplinary charges," Newark Firefighters Union attorney Craig Gumpel wrote in the January 5 letter, asking that the charges be dismissed "with prejudice."
Special Assistant to Ambrose Corrine Rivers released a statement in response to TAPinto Newark's inquiry.
"The Department of Public Safety cannot comment on any pending legal matters concerning Latina Byrd until they are fully adjudicated," Rivers said. "The Department is having difficulty adjudicating matters concerning Latina Byrd because she has refused to cooperate with the investigation into her allegations."
Hours after the statement from Rivers, Byrd received a hand-delivered letter stating that she would be given a "fit for duty" exam on Feb. 8.